The 1.5 million or so people who crowd into Benjamin Franklin Parkway to see Pope Francis next week are going to want to use their cell phones. They’re going to want to take a picture or a vide,o and it post it to Instagram or Snapchat. This is a fact. It’s 2015 and attendance at a Pope party is something people will want to share with friends and family.

The problem is these tons of people will be doing all of this at the same time, straining cellular and WiFi networks. The good news is AT&T and Verizon Wireless have spent a combined $47 million in Philadelphia to increase capacity on their networks and make this less of a problem. The bad news? Still 1.5 million people piling into an area of far less than a square mile.  

“It’s going to be very difficult to support that many people no matter what they do, even if money was not an object,” said Andrea Goldsmith, an engineering professor at Stanford and the leader of the school’s Wireless Systems Lab. “Even if money and time were not an object.”

The problem boils down to volume. Tons of people will be battling for the same space on either WiFi or cellular networks at the same time. 

AT&T and Verizon have been preparing, though. Verizon spokesperson John O’Malley said the wireless conglomerate started planning for this weekend once Philadelphia learned it would be the host for the World Meeting of Families last April, just in case Pope Francis confirmed he’d be coming. Verizon had been planning improvements already. With the impending visit, they packed the five years of work into a little over a year. The modifications include several more permanent cell towers with added capacity, four temporary towers, and a Distributed Antenna System on the Parkway. The Distributed Antenna System can essentially do what a cell tower does and is ideal for large crowds in small spaces. They’ve been installed at football stadiums and for major events like South by Southwest.  

AT&T has made similar improvements, spending $23 million. Spokesperson Brandy Bell-Truskey said the company has quadrupled its capacity in the downtown Philadelphia area through a Distributed Antenna System and other improvements and will use supercells on wheels to temporarily increase capacity for the pope weekend.

Supercell on wheels
Supercell on wheels Credit: AT&T

“We are talking about a massive amount of people at the same place and the same time using smartphones, using tablets,” Bell-Truskey said, “and that being the case there’s no doubt this is a challenge. But it’s a challenge we’re giving everything we’ve got to.”

The first challenge of this new system? The Made in America festival over Labor Day weekend. Cell phone service, reported the Inquirer, was “terrible.”

WiFi might be the biggest question. For large crowds, Goldsmith says, WiFi can greatly lessen the burden placed on cellular networks. WiFi networks can still hold only a finite amount of bandwidth but quite a bit more than cellular networks.

The World Meeting of Families is providing free WiFi hotspots at each of the 40 or so jumbotrons that will stand along the Parkway and throughout Center City. O’Malley said Verizon has no WiFi hotspots in downtown Philadelphia. Bell-Truskey recommended AT&T customers to use AT&T hotspots when possible but they weren’t able to tell us by this morning whether the company is adding any more hotspots for the event.

Xfinity has hotspots throughout the area, and a representative from Comcast said the company is bolstering existing hotspots and adding new ones in the papal areas. Xfinity is also offering limited usage of this WiFi for non-subscribers.  

Asked whether the possibility of thousands of Xfinity subscribers using the hotspot WiFi coverage could slow down the internet for nearby residences or businesses that use Xfinity routers and produce the WiFi for the hotspots, the representative said he could not speculate and added again that Comcast is bolstering public WiFi capabilities around the papal events.  

It’s easy to second-guess preparation for the papal event and will probably happen even more once the event is complete. But Goldsmith said the carriers know what they’re doing, more than she does.

Still, her educated guess is that problems will occur. The technology that exists at this point has little chance of handling the estimated crowd coming to see Pope Francis.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...